“Do you have the kind of trust in God that allows you to face death?”
Boyce College professor Denny Burk posed that question in Alumni Memorial Chapel on Sept. 18, 2012, saying that “God can transform your pain into someone else’s comfort.”
The sermon preyed on my conscience throughout the day. I questioned whether or not I had ever experienced any suffering, much less that God had used it for a significant purpose. Was I missing something essential in the Christian experience?
Twenty-four hours later, an afternoon phone call disrupted my first semester at Southern Seminary and rocked the foundations of my faith.
“Craig, your father has shot himself.” I could barely hear my parents’ neighbor speak those horrifying words, drowned out by my mother wailing with a grief so fierce tremors pulsed through my body and heat rushed to my face. Even now, I vividly remember how my soul ached when I crumpled to the floor and uttered screams that rang throughout the halls of the Honeycutt Campus Center.
“If God’s goodness is inconsistent with hurting us,” writes C.S. Lewis in A Grief Observed, “then either God is not good or there is no God; for in the only life we know He hurts us beyond our worst fears and beyond all we can imagine.”
Welcome to the seminary of suffering
Larry Wayne Sanders Jr. was a Southern Baptist pastor for 26 years who shaped my faith through his shepherding and preaching. In November 1996, he baptized me and continued his godly instruction as he had since my earliest memories. In nearly every way, my father formed my understanding of the world.
Only four months before his death, it became apparent that he was struggling with a dark depression. While suicide can never be rationalized, pastoral burnout and health complications had left him in a state of extreme mental anguish.
As my wife and I traveled seven hours from Louisville, Kentucky, to Spartanburg, South Carolina, she turned to me and asked, “Does this change your calling?” I was one month into my seminary education, but the answer was clear: my father’s death was accelerating my call to ministry.
The next morning, I sat in a funeral home where my father had conducted countless services as a pastor — not even the funeral home director could compose himself as my family discussed the service arrangements. Though I was in a haze of mourning, Burk’s sermon rang clearly in my mind, and I opened my Bible to 2 Corinthians 1:4-11 — the text of his message — and read the Apostle Paul’s words to my family:
If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. … But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again
(2 Corinthians 1:6, 9b-10 ESV).
Burk’s sermon preserved my heart for this tragedy, and God used the support of Southern Seminary to sustain me and remind me of his faithfulness — through the prayers of the seminary community, and the grace and wise counsel extended by my professors.
Since I had not yet joined a church, I met with Jeremy Pierre, my shepherding group leader and assistant professor of biblical counseling, on a weekly basis for guidance as I walked through my grief. In the midst of my despair, when I struggled for clarity even to leave my apartment each morning, Pierre reminded me of the prophet Jeremiah’s refrain in Lamentations.
Surrounded by the destruction of Jerusalem and the suffering of his people, Jeremiah pauses from his lament to write, “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:21-23).
“Crises are gifts from a loving Father for the purpose of reminding us of our weakness,” Pierre, now also dean of students, said in a recent interview. “Rather than think about a crisis as a setback to preparation for ministry, seminary students should see it as a leap forward in preparation for ministry because God prepares us primarily by meeting us in our brokenness as a demonstration of his resurrection power.”
‘Why is all of this happening at once?’
In February 2013, New Testament Ph.D. student Matt McMains found himself in a familiar place: the hospital. Since enrolling at Southern Seminary in 2011, he has been hospitalized for more than a week on four occasions. Born with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID) — the “bubble boy” disease — McMains is susceptible to viruses.
“The doctors told me my lungs looked like that I had pneumonia 100 times and hadn’t been treated for it,” McMains said about his recent diagnosis with bronchiectasis, an enlargement of the lung’s airways. “He said they looked really bad. At the time he told me that he didn’t think I had a good chance with the way my lungs looked.”
Despite receiving a bone marrow transplant from his father to borrow an immune system, McMains says the treatment is wearing off, which resulted in contracting CMV and pneumonia. In college, a virus that attacked his feet confined him to a wheelchair for several years.
In the midst of his physical ailments, McMains says the most difficult struggle is the loss of four family members, including two of his nephews with SCID.
First, it was his grandfather in September 2012, a Southern Baptist pastor in Oklahoma who died of pancreatic cancer. Then, his 3-month old nephew died in June 2013 from an infection after receiving a transplant. The following month, his mother died after a two-year battle with bone cancer. In September 2013, his 7-year-old nephew died from lymphoma he contracted from his bone marrow transplant.
Under the preaching of his grandfather, Robert Hammons, McMains had professed faith in Christ at the age of 7. As Hammons’ health declined from pancreatic cancer before his death on Sept. 26, 2012, McMains spent time with his spiritual patriarch and received comfort for his own suffering.
“I already viewed him as a hero of the faith, but it was encouraging to see him never waver and continue to point me to Christ while his body was painfully breaking down from cancer,” McMains said. “It greatly affected me to see Christ hold him up until the very end.”
“When all of this first came out, I wasn’t sure if I would get to see my son grow up and a sense of hopelessness came over me, but to be reminded that God’s grace is sufficient in all circumstances keeps me going. When my family is going through all of these things and my mom is slowly and painfully dying, it is encouraging to see how my brothers and sisters are sustained by God’s goodness.”
A member of Clifton Baptist Church, McMains says he “can see God’s providence” in placing him under his pastor and doctoral supervisor Thomas R. Schreiner, whose counsel has benefited him during his trials. Schreiner, James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation and associate dean of the School of Theology, faced tragedy himself on Aug. 17, 2012, when his wife was involved in a severe bicycle accident.
“Why did it happen? The Scriptures are clear: to bring glory to God,” Schreiner wrote on an online journal several weeks after the accident. “He planned it for our good, so that we would become more like Christ and trust our Father even more.”
Although his trials of grief and illness have forced McMains to slow down his doctoral studies, he remains committed to the personal value of theological education.
“Deeply studying the truths of Scripture while going through trials made seminary a more practical endeavor instead of a strictly academic one,” McMains said. “I think God has used it to gain a deeper understanding of the significance of what I am going through and studying.”
‘They told us he wasn’t going to survive’
Two days before he was supposed to graduate from Southern Seminary, Jamin Bailey walked into his son’s room to find the toddler convulsing in his crib. The former combat engineer officer in the U.S. Marine Corps rushed his son to the Huntsville Hospital for Women & Children in Huntsville, Alabama. Jamin, his wife Crystal, two daughters, 4-year-old River and newborn Journey — born April 27, 2014 — waited for several days before doctors diagnosed 22-month-old Ryker with viral encephalitis.
“My relationship with Jesus Christ and knowledge of God’s sovereignty was the only foundation that I could rely on,” Jamin recalled, “as the doctors and nurses told me that my son wasn’t going to survive. … The virus had progressed too far and done too much damage for him to recover.”
For five days, the family prayed, not knowing if Ryker would survive the life-threatening disease. Southern Seminary also rallied around the family, sending Ryker balloons and a giant teddy bear and conferring Jamin’s degree over the phone.
“It’s a joy to just hear your voice,” Southern Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. said upon conferring the degree to Jamin, May 17. “We’re just so proud that you’re one of our alumni, and thankful that right now the Lord is fulfilling your function as father in a way that is showing the glory of God even more than had you been here for the commencement ceremony.”
“The only thing I knew the seminary could do between conferring my degree and calling to check up on Ryker was to pray,” Jamin said. “I believe those prayers were effectual.”
Ryker was released from the hospital on June 2, and though he will need occupational therapy for up to a year, he is “making great progress” on his way to a full recovery. His family says he is singing, talking, and running around, but does not have full usage of his right hand.
Even though he was finished with his master of divinity, Jamin says his suffering during Ryker’s illness “enhanced” his seminary education and provided the empathy he needed to comfort those facing death.
“Everything I had been learning about crisis and counseling came to life before me,” said Jamin, now a corporate chaplain in Greenville, North Carolina. “I was experiencing what the people I would serve in the future go through when family members have unexpected illnesses or pain. From a very practical point of view, I learned the ins and outs through the rigors of experience.”
The resurrection power of God
“Death is the necessary canvas for life to be best displayed,” said Pierre in a chapel message, Sept. 18, 2014.
Expounding on Paul’s imagery of the jars of clay to describe human weakness, Pierre said, “Seminary students do not train to strengthen the clay, but rather to understand the treasure of the gospel inside it.”
God greatly used my father’s death to impress upon me the urgency of theological education. In the two years since this tragedy, the seminary of suffering has awakened in me the reality of the faithfulness of Christ and resurrection power of God expressed in the classroom.
As A.W. Tozer writes in The Root of Righteousness, “It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until he has hurt him deeply.”
The seminary community played a vital role in my healing process, first preparing me to suffer and then serving as a source of comfort during my grief. Suffering is inevitable in the Christian life, and seminary is a training ground for applying biblical wisdom when a crisis erupts in your midst.